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An article of mine, which I developed in 2015-2016, was published in the eContact journal in 2017.

Read the entire article here.

Abstract: By the middle of the 20th century, composers of electronic and electroacoustic music had begun to reenvision the concert hall. Buttressed by theories of acousmatic sound articulated by Pierre Schaeffer and his associates at the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) in Paris, loudspeakers replaced the hidden orchestras of the 19th century. The orientation of the listener, however, would evolve much more slowly. As an alternative to the tradition of electronic sound production that continued to organize its audiences in relation to the stage, we will look towards radiophonic art as cultivating a different mode of “live” listening and in turn a different relationship between audience and work. The direction that Schaeffer led is perhaps not surprising, given that he began his career producing work for radio. The more general experience of listening to the radio — be it by headset, in private, in public or driving in a car — freed listening from the baggage of earlier performance paradigms oriented around theatricality and the stage, which encouraged one to focus on what is seen as well as what is heard. The novel transmission method made possible by wireless radios also created a space — institutional and otherwise — for experimentation and rethinking (or circumventing) this tradition. Though the discourse of music, in particular, continues to be mired in the values of stage production (authenticity, virtuosity, spectacle), the ubiquitous experience of radio listening created new imaginaries, and new sonic spaces, that have yet to be fully realized. This is in part related to the continued “privileging of music as the art of sound in modern Western culture.”  Through my emphasis on the perception of sound as experience, as well as attention to the broader constitution of radio as embedded in media ecology rather than as a singular medium, I hope to avoid the aporia of content versus medium. Because audiences are in part discursive constructs, and because the creation of new forms of work cultivates new modes of listening, I argue that the radiophonic work offers a paradigm for sonic arts in general to finally leave the stage behind.

How quick we are to believe our present moment is new, different and incommensurable with the past. This is especially true in our fetishization of new technologies, as even a cursory glance at the recent (popular and scholarly) literature on digital audio will show. A reliable chorus of commentators continues to blame the dematerialization of music for the alleged decline of the music industry. 

“But wasn’t radio broadcast the first dematerialization of music?” This question was posed by the composer Francisco López in a recent essay in which he argues that our renewed attention to immateriality will help lead us “back to an ethereal state of listening” (López 2014). That is, when there is no meaningful distinction to be made between “original” and “copy”, when we are “empty of any imaginable materialized music,” we are able to listen as did listeners before the advent of recorded sound and its attendant fetishizations. I would resist the conservative implication of a “going back to”, which always carries something of a reactionary tinge, but certainly there’s something to be gained from problematizing received notions of listening.

Radio broadcasting isn’t truly immaterial, of course, nor is the streaming or downloading of audio. You can store a lot of music on a 2 TB hard drive, certainly, but after all it does take up some space. It can only hold a finite amount, and each drive takes up physical space. The material of the drive components had to be extracted from the earth, fabricated, assembled by collective labour. Downloading and streaming necessitate servers, optical wires, a broader telecommunications infrastructure and the electricity required to power it all. In the case of radio, likewise, we have radio stations, broadcast equipment, radio towers and so on, and the listener needs a radio receiver and speakers or headphones in order to tune in. So, in these ways, radio broadcasting and listening, can still be understood in quite material terms. But the reception, the individual (and collective) experience of listening is immaterial in ways that watching a concert, playing music or listening to physical media are not. The kind of audience produced through “dematerialized” listening is distinct from the tradition of stage performance, in that the listener’s attention is fixed primarily on the sonic material.

The present line of reflection stems from two related questions: the question of modes of listening and the question of orientation. Put another way, I am interested in how media and architecture shape music, specifically how the role of the audience contributes to the actualization of a work. Oddly enough, my line of enquiry begins with a painting.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1533) foregrounds, and plays with, the orientation of the viewer and the way in which the content of a work orients the viewer in relation to it. Giotto introduced a vast improvement in perspective and depth in the early 14th century, however, it was during the Italian Renaissance of the Quattrocento that mathematical perspective was pioneered in its application in graphical depiction. For example, “The Ambassadors” assumes the viewer will assume a particular position in order to view the portrait “properly”, acknowledging this and playing with it by using the technique of anamorphosis to disguise a skull in the bottom portion of the painting. From the “proper” perspective there appears to be a white diagonal blur, but when the viewer shifts perspective in order to be much closer to the canvas and looking up from the hard right, the image reveals itself to be a skull. This painting foregrounds, and plays with, the orientation of the viewer and the way in which the content of a work positions the viewer in relation to it. There are, of course, many examples of paintings that are unrelated to Cartesian perspectivalism: Japanese scroll painting, abstract expressionism, etc. At least for our present purposes, I do not aim to make a normative judgment — I don’t claim that any one system is necessarily better than another. But what is important is that in recognizing that there exist alternatives to the way we tend to do things, we denaturalize the familiar way of doing things and, in so doing, create spaces for alternative approaches. We might ask, has music had its “Ambassadors” moment? What would anamorphosis in music sound like?

The nature of a work’s distribution is key to its definition or classification.

We should begin at the stage of production. What does a mixing engineer imagine while they are working? What do they visualize, literally, while looking at waveforms and Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)? The visual nature of audio production has been reinforced through the visual interfaces of commonplace DAWs, representing the experience of sound as a visual form akin to writing, meant to be “read” from left to right. Spatial metaphors abound as we visualize listening to a mix by imagining the stereo field as a virtual stage. This could certainly be a useful tool for discussing musical analysis with non-specialist language. But what does it say about the musical imagination when “the stage” exists always already there.

One might say that an art form is defined by its means of dispersion. That is, the nature of a work’s distribution (be it as performance or playback of a recording media) is key to its definition or classification. As such, the site of listening should be a privileged means of studying a work. While concert spaces for musical performance in the European tradition evolved over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to do so with multi-channel halls with advanced acoustics, these spaces are still constrained largely by tradition and by the paradigm of performance. Why can’t we imagine listening sessions that simply involve a dark room playing back a prepared multi-channel piece?

New Vantage Points for Listening

The sound art collective Ultra-red, founded in 1994 by two AIDS activists, has recently shifted their practice “from that which organizes sounds” to that which “organizes listening” (Radford 2015). That is, instead of placing emphasis on producing recordings based on their “militant sound investigations”, they now organize spaces of shared listening and discussion (Ultra-red 2012). In this spirit I ask, in what ways might radio propose new protocols for listening? To answer this question, I turn to the question of the audience, the cultivation of particular means and practices of listening and the potential inherent in the specificity of radio itself as a medium. I would like to suggest that the kind of listening engendered by radio offers an alternative to the tradition of the stage, which classical/rock/pop music has carried with it.

Rarely made explicit, listening practices are nonetheless structured by cultural, social and technical means. Radio, according to Allen Weiss in Phantasmatic Radio, is defined by this paradox:

A universally public transmission is heard in the most private circumstances; the thematic specificity of each individual broadcast, its imaginary scenario, is heard within an infinitely diverse set of non-specific situations, different for each listener; the radio’s putative shared solidarity of auditors in fact achieves their atomization as well as the reification of the imagination. (Allen S. Weiss cited in LaBelle 2002, 3)

From the vantage point of our media-saturated present it may be easy to underestimate the impact of wireless technology on cultural life when it first debuted. A history of wireless technology might begin with Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a Bengali polymath and father of radio science who, by 1896, was transmitting radio successfully at further distances than thought to be physically possible at that time. He had no interest in patenting his work or pursuing commercial applications of his research. Much better known is the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless telegraph conquered the English Channel in 1899, ushering in the age of early adopters building their own radio transmitters and receivers. Radio was mostly a solitary pursuit at this time and operators wore headsets. In 1906 the technology was still in its nascent stage, catching unsuspecting Navy personnel unawares when they first heard voices coming over their radios. In 1912, after radio operators spread false reports of survivors rescued after the sinking of the Titanic, federal regulations increasingly came to limit the use of airwaves. The BBC and other state radio stations were charted in the 1920s, and by the advent of the Great Depression, the USA had four commercial broadcasters. Through the rapid spread of radio as an entertainment medium and its use as a real-time news reporting service, it became ubiquitous and much loved throughout the 1930s, and its popularity was not eclipsed until the advent of television in the post-war period.

Radio should not be understood as merely the technical apparatus or physical process, but as the overlapping parts that make up a station and the industry as a whole, including its listeners. 6[6. As Matthew Fuller argues in Media Ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2005).] For Timothy Campbell, the wireless radio comes into its own with the pairing of wireless connectivity with disk storage, both in the form of writing and in the form of gramophone recordings, and draws attention to the way in which radio can be understood as exercises in the manipulation of time. Wireless technologies necessitated couplings of equipment that produced technological subjects, and as such the early days of radiotelegraphy can be understood to have enacted profound changes on human perception and corporeality (Campbell 2006, 3). Jonathan Sterne, in The Audible Past, describes these modes of listening cultivated by audio reproduction technologies — including telegraphy, the telephone, the gramophone and radio — as “audile technique”, which he characterizes as a bourgeois form of listening, rooted in a practice of individuation:

Listeners could own their own acoustic spaces through owning the material component of a technique of producing that auditory space — the “medium” stands in for a whole set of framed practices. (Sterne 2003, 160)

Sterne argues that this understanding of listening is far from natural or universal and should not be taken for granted. He turns to Richard Leppert, who in The Sight of Sound offered readings of collective listening depicted in 17th-century painting. The sense of where the sound was located is important to all these paintings. Place and landscape are emphasized. The location of the listening is explicitly situated. It is only in the 19th century that an obsession with privacy and domesticity emerges. Rather than focus on the distinction between Man and Animal, the emphasis turns to negotiating differences in social class. Urban and industrial noise comes to be understood as encroaching upon the “natural” soundscape.

Early Radiophonic Experimentation

Walter Benjamin is, of course, well known as a literary and cultural critic, and since his death has been renowned as a deeply original thinker and as a wonderful writer. Less known is the fact that between 1927 and 1933 Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly one hundred radio broadcasts, split between Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt. These programmes were often designed with children in mind and carried a strong didactic quality, conveying information and cultivating critical thinking. Benjamin drew on folk stories and traditional popular art forms to draw in listeners, though his interest in traditional popular art forms was most genuine. It was for this reason, in fact, that he made the effort to produce these broadcasts all those years. 7[7. See Benjamin’s The Storyteller for some insight into the role played by storytellers in popular culture.] Because these broadcasts were delivered live and were unrecorded, our only access to these programmes is via their reconstruction using Benjamin’s own scripts and notes.

Around this time, Bertolt Brecht imagined the invention of a device that could be affixed to a radio set in order to:

… make it possible to record and archive for all time everything that can be communicated by radio. Later generations would then have the chance of seeing with amazement how an entire population — by making it possible to say what they had to say to the whole world — simultaneously made it possible for the whole world to see that they had absolutely nothing to say. (Brecht cited in Goldsmith 2014)

Brecht surely did not have Benjamin in mind in this dismissal of the content of radio, but I read this anecdote as evidence that Brecht understood the medium hadn’t yet been utilized to its fullest potential.

The potential of radio lies in what it abolishes: the space of the stage, time, unity of action, dramatic character and the audience as a self-appointed judging mass.

In 1933, months after Benjamin was forced off the air following the election of Hitler as chancellor of Germany, the Italian Futurists published the manifesto “La Radia,” celebrating the fact that radio broadcasts had done away with the stage, thereby freeing sound from the visual and theatrical associations of performance. This opened the door to the ethereal state that fascinates López, and the æsthetic possibilities of this listening have yet to be fully appreciated or explored. The Futurists rightly perceived the radical potential in the medium, at a time in which the Great Depression had retarded the advancement of recordings as commodities to be bought and sold. Before CDs, cassette tapes or vinyl, music was not a physical commodity. One either made music oneself, attended a performance or, in the age of radio, listened to the immaterial broadcast on radio.

But radio wasn’t just a medium for broadcasting music; it was also an entertainment medium that was seen to be in competition with theatre, cinema and other forms of entertainment. In the manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pino Masnata situate radio in an antagonistic relationship towards the theatre. Though from our perspective, we might argue that it is not an either/or situation, this bombastic hyperbole allows the Futurists to underscore what is unique about the radio. In asking after media specificity, they are really asking: What can radio do, and what kind of work should be made for radio?

“La Radia” begins by declaring what Radio must not be: theatre, cinema or books. The particular reasons for attacking these forms aside, what is important is that radio not try to emulate other media. The potential of radio lies in what it abolishes: the space of the stage, time, unity of action, dramatic character and the audience as a self-appointed judging mass. Let us linger on this last for a moment. Freed from the necessity of performance, the radio artist needn’t worry about the hostile audience interrupting the work or physically assaulting the performers, who are now separated from the audience by time and space. 8[8. Stravinsky’s 1913 debut of Le Sacre du printemps resulted in an infamous near-riot; however, the Futurists more likely had in mind the violent crowd response which greeted the debut of their compatriot Luigi Russolo’s Gran Concerto Futuristico (1917), in which he put into practice the theories expounded in his 1913 manifesto, “The Art of Noises.”] Here one might think of the opening line of Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in which he claims that “[i]n the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful” (Benjamin 2007, 69). Though building an argument about translation as something other than simply conveying information, Benjamin’s insight has larger significance to the question of intentionality and meaning. For Benjamin, a work is never “intended” for its receiver. Even when the things “intended” coincide, modes of intention may vary. This distinction may help make my argument regarding the relationship between a work and the medium of its transmission clearer.

As the nature of radio has evolved over the decades, other manifestos have followed. If there exists a thread that ties them together, it is not to be found in the contour of actually existing programmes or radio plays, but in an implicit æsthetic that has nonetheless emerged from the medium’s “hot” audio. The Austrian programme Kunstradio, broadcasting on Austrian National Radio ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk) since 1987 and online since 1995, has played an important role in defining and promoting radio art works through their programming and international commissions. Since 2004, they have included broadcasts in 5.1 surround sound format, further pushing the boundaries of the medium and foregrounding reception. Robert Adrian X, a Canadian media artist living in Vienna for decades, helped to provide Kunstradio with its guiding manifesto in “Toward a Definition of Radio Art” (1998) — its simple 12 points seek to clearly delimit the field. Adrian defines radio in contrast to music or sound art as art whose medium is radio. Simply broadcasting a work on the radio does not make it a radio work. The importance of this distinction informs Adrian’s understanding of what he terms “radio space”, which is simply “all the places where radio is heard.” Radio art is the composition of “sound objects experienced in radio space.” Because each listener will have a unique perception of radio space, comprised as it is by sounds both intentional and environmental, radio art must produce “open works” that are flexible enough for a diversity of possible radio spaces. Thus, the eleventh point may be the most significant: “The radio artist knows that there is no way to control the experience of a radio work.” This is far removed from the ideal of Western art music in which the composer’s intention remains primary.

The Dissipative Action of the Stage

In his recent book, Sound Unseen, Brian Kane rightly problematizes the received narrative of musique concrète, which recounts the myth of Pythagoras lecturing from behind the veil to his silent pupils in order to insert themselves into the position of master, swapping the veil for modern audio reproduction technologies (the record, tape, mixing board, loudspeakers) and the silent disciples for the silent mass listening at home or together in the concert hall. Kane details various 19th-century concert hall innovations designed to hide or obstruct musicians from the view of the audience. This includes sunken orchestra pits such as in the Stadthalle in Heidelberg, in which the orchestra is also hidden behind a curtain. Interestingly, Kane also cites the Nazi-era Dunkelkonzerte performances of Bruckner’s symphonic works in Vienna. These were concerts performed in the dark, inspiring a form of religious feeling, designed to recuperate a “German” Bruckner into the project of the Reich. Although still performed in a traditional concert hall, the removal of the visual aspect of performance was meant to intensify the impact of the music. This phenomenon was not limited to the public concert halls Kane documents. For instance, in the ballroom of Castle De Haar, outside Utrecht, chamber musicians would perform from behind a grail. 9[9. Restored in 1892 and financed by marriage into the Rothschild family, Castle De Haar was the work of Architect P.J.H. Cuypers, best known for the Amsterdam Central Station.] This serves as a prime example of the hidden orchestra as bourgeois privation, in which musicians are afforded the status not of artists but servants, isolated from the audience and controlled by the master of the house. But in tracing precedents to acousmatic listening in the European concert hall traditions of the 19th century, Kane loses sight of the role of audience. In each instance, the source of the sounds are hidden, but in all cases the audience remains singularly oriented. What other ways of arranging an audience is possible? And how might a radio audience differ fundamentally in its constitution than in a concert hall?

With the advent of electronic music and musique concrète in the mid-20th century, we begin to see a new interest in alternative architecture of performance. There is the Acousmonium, a multi-channel loudspeaker developed by François Bayle, a prominent disciple of the aforementioned Pierre Schaeffer at the GRM. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose approach to sound was rooted in synthesis rather than in the manipulation of pre-recorded material as was the French convention, advocated a more radical shift in the concert hall, imagining a spherical space from which the composer would be situated on a central podium. This space could be experienced at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, where Stockhausen debuted Expo, a process composition written in 1969–70 for three performers manipulating shortwave radio receivers.

The sphere has remained a source of inspiration for more recent projects, such as the SATosphere at the Société des Arts Technologiques in Montréal. The arrangement and orientation of the audience are mutable, depending on the needs of a particular exhibit or performer. Audiences can recline in order to focus on the visual projections or instead dance unencumbered by seats or orienting right angles.

There are also now on the market a great many sophisticated home audio setups, 8- or 10-channel systems that, though often designed with TV screens and video games in mind, allow for a complexity of mixing that goes unutilized by most producers and composers. It seems to me that the video game industry exploits these capabilities most fully, knowing that a dedicated audience has the technical capabilities and desire to experience a spatial verisimilitude that enhances game play. Despite the growth of mobile gaming in recent years, video games remain a juggernaut industry and they have exploited the conditions of console gaming’s place amongst home media centres to exploit the capabilities of sophisticated home audio much more than film or recorded music. Though this is an area that still remains full of potential, it too fails to escape the ubiquitous stage or its spatial orientation.

The “inner space” imagined by French composer Éliane Radigue is one possible conceptual model we could explore to move beyond the traditional understanding of the audience’s relation to the artistic work. The liner notes to her 1973 work Transamoren-Transmorten, conceived of as a sound installation, detail one possible mode of listening:

This monophonic tape should be played on 4 speakers placed in the four corners of an empty room. Carpet on the floor. The impression of different points of origin of the sound is produced by the localization of the various zones of frequencies, and by the displacements produced by simple movements of the head within the acoustic space of the room. A low point of light on the ceiling, in the center of the room, produced by indirect lighting. Several white light projectors of very weak intensity whose rays, coming from different angles, meet at a single point. (Radigue in Important Records 2011)

Conceived of as a sound installation rather than an electroacoustic performance, Radigue’s work seems to have opened the conceptual space to imagine modes of listening that are quite removed from the performance stage. This may seem to recall La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “Dream House” 10[10. Presented in temporary locations as early as 1971, the Dia Foundation has kept “Dream House” in operation at two successive addresses in TriBeCa (Manhattan) since 1993.], however, what distinguishes Radique is her theory of “anti-acoustics” and her utilization of cross-like speaker formations to discourage listeners from relating to traditional concert halls in the standard fashion, in terms of sweet spots and privileged positions. Yet location and spatialization is inseparable from the experience of Radigue’s work. In a 2011 interview with Paul Schütze for Frieze, she compares the locations of her performances to “conch shells in which the audience is placed — as if they are inside the body of an instrument” (Schütze 2011). For her, the dynamism of electronic sounds charges the site of listening itself, and challenges listeners to inhabit the space physically and not just mentally. This might entail moving one’s head or even walking slowly around the room.

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Figure 1. Stephen Vitiello and Bob Bielecki’s You Are the Sweet Spot (2014) during the In the Garden of Sonic Delights sound art festival at Caramoor NY in Katonah in 2014. Image © Gabe Palacio. Permission pending. [Click image to enlarge]

At this point, I might note that what distinguishes this engagement from pre-industrial musicking, or even dancing at a nightclub, is akin to the distinction Robert Adrian X makes in distinguishing radio art from other sonic art forms. The artwork is made with the medium of dispersion in mind, and this in turn affects both the form and content of the work, rather than being a simple byproduct. And with this we can begin to build a canon of sound works that are not stage-oriented at all. Janet Cardiff is a Canadian installation artist whose work is primarily audio-based and often site-specific. Her 2015 installation, The Forty Part Motet, distributes forty voices across forty dedicated speakers in an elliptical position, ensuring that every listener, whether standing still or in motion, will experience the work as a uniquely sculptural sonic experience. To very different effect, Cardiff’s site-specific soundwalks situate the listener in the liminal space between recording and reality, akin to the “radio space” described in the Kunstradio manifesto. Presented as a sort of urban walking tour designed by Cardiff, the audio (and sometimes accompanying video) takes the listener on a walk through a specific location, for instance a public park or a museum. In such works, the listener is no longer simply a spectator, but also an active participant. The soundwalk relies on re-creating binaural sounds, rendering for the listener a convincing three-dimensional world in which the threshold between art and life becomes blurred — one is never quite sure if one is hearing a sound from the headphones or from those actually on location that day. This ensures that despite the narrative and form guiding these works, they are only actualized in the subjective experience of each participant.

Much of the work that gets labelled as “Sound Art” in major museum and art gallery exhibitions could be said to fall into what Seth Kim-Cohen has described as “ambient” sound art, or, in other words, works that are experienced ambiently rather than conceptually. The most successful of such pieces often foster a more complex and substantial engagement with the site and with practices of listening. Stephen Vitiello and Bob Bielecki’s You Are the Sweet Spot (Fig. 1) foregrounds the notion of the ideal orientation for listening in a way that is not unlike Radigue’s anti-acoustics. When we sit in a concert hall we often wonder where in the room might offer the “best” (however defined) sonic experience. Recorded music tends to consider (virtual) orientation in a similar way, presenting the sound to the listener as if to position them in that perfect sweet spot. You Are the Sweet Spot was included as part of In the Garden of Sonic Delights sound art festival at Caramoor in Katonah in 2014. A bourgeois estate in the suburbs north of New York City, Caramoor was built as an Italianate villa designed for the performance of music. Since the death of the original owners, and in keeping with their legacy, Caramoor has become a destination for the public to come and experience music. Caramoor lends itself to a show oriented around sound, as the grounds were built around practices of listening. Each artist or group of artists was able to choose a different location on the grounds to create their work, so in some sense each piece is site-specific, not only in the sense of having been built for a particular site but conceptually intertwined with its location. By utilizing the particular resonant frequencies “preferred” by the acoustic space they selected, Vitiello and Bielecki have produced a piece in which the sweet spot is in dialogue with both the listener and the architecture of the site of the installation. When the listener reaches the perimeter of the space, all reverberations vanish. Conceptually speaking, the work might not pass the strictest test of being site-specific, as it could conceivably be installed in any number of locations — although the speakers installed in terracotta wine jugs certainly speaks to the Italianate-style of the grounds (cf. Kwon 1997, 85–110). But in terms of the sonic materiality of the work, it is absolutely shaped by the particularity of the site.

Artists are increasingly searching for new paradigms and practices of presenting their sound works. One example of this movement is the concert series SIX hosted by the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Billed as live surround showcases, the concerts feature a 6.1 surround sound system and a flexible audience configuration. Artists such as wndfrm and Yann Novak have performed in the series, as well as Marcus Fischer, who enjoys playing these concerts not only for the occasion to develop multi-channel work, but also because of the intense modes of listening engendered by the events: “I feel like people know going into it that it is a listening event and so they approach it differently. It is not unusual to see people laying on blankets with their eyes closed in deep listening. Even those who are moving around the room they typically refrain from talking” (Fischer 2016). It is this quality that makes gestures towards the greatest potentiality, as alternate modes of realization engender alternate modes of listening.

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Figure 2. DIagramme showing the setup for Giovanni Lami’s Bias (2015), performed live by Lami during the Helicotrema recorded audio festival at Forte Marghera in Mestre (Italy) on 25 September 2015. Image © Giovanni Lami. Used by permission. [Click image to enlarge]

The Italian festival Helicotrema presents a programme of recorded audio pieces that aims to investigate different forms of collective listening, inspired by the early decades of radio broadcasts. The festival departs from the observation that:

… in the field of contemporary art and — to some extent — of contemporary theatre, the last decade has witnessed a gradual comeback of interest in the forms of audio plays, audio dramas, audio documentaries and various kinds of timeline-based formats based only on an acoustic component. (Helicotrema festival website)

As such, the festival privileges work that reflects a significant engagement with themes of spatiality and site-specific transformations. They present work that both necessitates an alternate paradigm and inherently responds to concepts of space and place. For instance, Giovanni Lami deploys room-length tape loops for Bias (Fig. 2), an audio document of “etudes for buried and exhumed audio tape” that are subtly manipulated into compositions. Rather than record an environment through use of a conventional apparatus, i.e. a microphone, Lami’s tapes make audible the chemical composition of the soil they were buried in, reacting directly with the medium of magnetic tape, akin to a photographer capturing light on film without a camera. Or Robert Curgenven’s Climata, performed in the foyer of Venice’s Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi on 19 October 2016. Climata’s source material consists of recordings made in 15 of the artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces. The tones are produced by heterodyning, using the aperture to turn the entire structure into a Helmholz resonator. By generating tones according to the specific resonant frequencies of each Skyspace, the architecture comes to act as both “filter and instrument.” These two microtones tuned very close together to create a “beating” phase, vibrating the air through the aperture to create an audible tone, activating an architectural feature of the work to produce a unique acoustic experience. By recording Climata “one note at a time” across fifteen different sites, Curgenven has reterritorialized these dispersed locations into a coherent work, emphasizing both the particularities of each location (as the particularities of each location dictate the tone generated) and their coming together.

Radiophonics

How might a radio audience differ fundamentally in its constitution than in a concert hall? How does the spatiality of radiophonic sound differ acoustically? And how do compositions produced for radio differ formally from work produced by the same composer(s) for other settings? Radio elides the problem of the stage, which is one of the reasons that led conventionally trained instrumental composers to create radiophonic work. Luc Ferrari was attracted to the length of the broadcast and the unique listening potential created by radio, including its ephemerality, and created over a hundred Hörspiele, or German radio plays, over the course of his career. Many other composers were drawn to radio plays and radiophonic work, including Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio, and the Prix Italia award for radiophonic work drew outstanding submissions from across Europe for three decades (De Benedictis and Novati 2011). Due to the conditions of reception being so different from the concert hall, and because radio listeners were already accustomed to listening without seeing, radiophonic works were often far ahead of their time in experimenting with sound.

In “Against the Stage,” Francisco López considers this question and tradition from a different perspective, one that finds resonance in the work produced by electronic and electroacoustic composers, as well as sound designers working in radio, such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The visual orientation of the stage is deeply problematic for him, as it detracts from the potential power of sonic matter, diverting the listeners’ attention and lessening the phenomenological experience of sound.

Rock/pop culture has inherited — or has accepted — the stage as an essential feature of its public realization directly from the traditions of opera, concert halls and variety shows (these being, in turn, transpositions to music of the more ancient strand of theater), which developed and constituted its dominance over a period of more than two hundred years prior to the apparition of rock. In this tradition, the dedicated contemplation of the vocal/instrumental performance is a key element of the music event. Besides the obvious differences, a rock/pop show shares this devoted contemplation of the music-making on stage. In rock/pop it takes a variety of forms, from appreciation of musicianship (as also happens so fiercely in jazz) to idolization to pure mega-spectacle. (López 2004)

Like Kane, he is interested in cultivating a different kind of practice amongst his listeners. López, one of the world’s leading sound artists for over three decades, resolutely refuses to perform on stage, instead situating himself in the middle of the audience. Further, he forces his audience to blindfold themselves, and performs entirely in the dark, his mixing console and equipment hidden from view until the audience is unable to see. “Against the Stage” is in many ways a manifesto justifying his practical and theoretical reasons for insisting on performing from the centre of the audience. The electronic musician is given a unique opportunity, because unlike the rock/pop musician, who generates sound from the stage but relies on the sound technician in the audience to shape the phenomenological reception, “the sound radiates from his/her position, the player of an acoustic instrument cannot be the generative actor and the receptor-as-audience at the same time” (López 2004). Sound work such as that produced by López, and even the classical electroacoustic tradition, may be far from the mainstream, but after seven decades of cultivation might indeed serve as an example for other sonic arts to free themselves from the stage, leading to a more intense focus on sound itself.

There is something deeply disconcerting in López’s insistence of blindfolding his audience. Seth Kim-Cohen has described López as “blissfully (if problematically) naive regarding the connotations of his extended text,” tuning into the sinister overtones of forcibly blindfolding an audience “at a performance just two miles from the site of the World Trade Center, in the midst of the U.S. War on Terror, in the wake of revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay” (Kim-Cohen 2009, 124). Kim-Cohen sees the blindfolded audience as being vulnerable, as their backs are turned to the artist sitting at the centre of them, in the space that is sonically and conceptually the most privileged in the room. When considered alongside the fascist legacy of the Futurists and the Nazi Dunkelkonzerte, it is not difficult for these events to take on a potentially sinister affect. Whether we experience this as an “instantiated power relation” (Ibid.) or as an open work akin to a radio broadcast, the question of the ethical and political nature of how a work forcibly orients its audience should nevertheless be addressed.

Electronic music, that is music that is produced primarily by electronic means and which foregrounds this fact, heralded in the most historic shift in the history of music (and more broadly of sound arts) in that electronic devices have severed the relationship between gesture and sound heard. The persistence of the stage is therefore not an inherent necessity but an entrenched cultural practice. Electronic music has cultivated its own relationship to the stage, but in doing so, often uncritically, the full potential of new forms of sound production and dissemination have remained mostly unexplored, or worse, unheard by most audiences.

Despite the continued marginal status of electronic music and sound art in the larger mediascape, there is indeed an acousmatic mass medium in radio. In the last century, radio played a central role in nurturing experimental forms of music and sound art not only through exposing listeners to diverse and often radical styles but also through engendering these new modes of listening that have thus been freed from the dictates formed by centuries of the dominance of the stage.

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Biography

imageJoseph Sannicandro is a writer and scholar currently based in Minneapolis, where he is pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies. Outside of the academy, he regularly blogs and publishes art and music criticism. Past work has dealt with Italian social movements, Hannah Arendt and online education, radiophonic arts and a history of New York’s immigration through the lens of its public works projects. He also records under the moniker the new objective and under his own name. The cassette Les Rumeurs de la montagne rouge, en chœur, convergent (Howl Arts, 2014) utilizes field recordings from the 2012 Québec student strike to explore the relationship between art and activism. An album of processed field recordings made in Mexico City was recently released on the Galaverna label.
http://soundpropositions.com

One thought on ““Radiophonic Arts and the Problem of the Stage”

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